I knew that this was a perfect book to feature for our current bimonthly theme. I literally drowned in the words as I was flipping through the pages of this beyond-brilliant book. It’s been fifty years since The Phantom Tollbooth has been published and now I wonder where it has been all my life.
Boredom and the Pursuit of Knowledge. One of the reasons why I love this book is that I know so many kids (and quite a number of grown-ups really) who are like Milo. Unsure about what to do with themselves, they claim half-heartedly and with cock-eyed arrogance that they are bored. When I was still teaching undergraduate students at the University and I hear them use the B-word, I would flash my eyes at them and give a searing pronouncement “It is a crime to be bored when you’re young!” 15 years later, I still believe this to be an absolute truth, and reading Milo’s fantastical journeys in the Forest of Sight, Valley of Sound, the Foothills of Confusion has solidified this.
“It seems to me that almost everything is a waste of time,” he remarked one day as he walked dejectedly home from school. “I can’t see the point in learning to solve useless problems, or subtracting turnips from turnips, or knowing where Ethiopia is or how to spell February.” And, since no one bothered to explain otherwise, he regarded the process of seeking knowledge as the greatest waste of time of all.” (p. 9)
Naturally, my geeky heart broke into fragments as I read those lines. When Milo arrived home, however, he found a mighty unusual package: “One genuine turnpike tollbooth” – fairly easy to assemble and would allow the ‘traveler’ to reach into the ‘lands beyond.’ With nothing better to do, he put the tollbooth together, climbed aboard his small electric automobile which he had not driven in months, and armed with a peculiar map and a book of rules and traffic regulations, he proceeded to check out what lay beyond the tollbooth – to an adventure of a lifetime.
Words and Numbers, Rhyme and Reason. From a bored little boy with nothing to do, Milo was thrust in the middle of this age-old tiff between Dictionopolis (world of words) and Digitopolis (the universe of numbers). Our little hero aimed to bring order back to the old City of Wisdom by rescuing Princesses Rhyme and Reason who have been banished to the Castle in the Air. Before he reaches the princesses, however, Milo would have to get past the official Senses taker, the Gorgons of Hate, the Triple Demons of Compromise (“one tall and thin, one short and fat, and the third exactly like the other two”) and the smorgasbord of devils lying in wait at the Mountains of Ignorance. Milo is not alone in this worthy quest as he is accompanied by Tock the loyal Watchdog and the vainglorious-yet-cowardly Humbug.
The word play is just plain brilliant and has kept me up laughing all night. Such astounding wit matched with a profound depth that would speak to the adult in the child, and the child in the adult. There are truths in the narrative couched in seemingly-innocent queries upon queries and delicious quips and playful puns. There is just so much to love in this book that I strongly feel that every child should at least have a chance to read it. I know that there may be a few kids who will come out of the Phantom Tollbooth experience even more flummoxed by the strangeness of words and numbers, as their heads grow dizzy by the minute trying to catch up with the logic of the illogical and the deliberate circumnavigation of words [and numbers!] weaving almost-drunkenly from one bizarre journey to the next. Yet, it is that bemused bafflement Juster’s word play induces that might also appeal to most – as one gradually gets the oft-moribund sense of humor edged with pure delight. It is a book that one will come back to – again and again at various stages in one’s life – as one takes pleasure in newly-discovered oddities and delightful strands of narratives one may have failed to see in the previous reading.
Quotable Quotes. Here are a few lines that really stood out for me:
“Whether or not you find your own way, you’re bound to find some way. If you happen to find my way, please return it, as it was lost years ago. I imagine by now it’s quite rusty…. Expect everything, I always say, and the unexpected never happens.” – pp. 19-20 as spoken by the WhetherMan in Expectations.
“I know one thing for certain: it’s much harder to tell whether you are lost than whether you were lost, for on many occasions, where you’re going is exactly where you are. On the other hand, you often find that where you’ve been is not at all where you should have gone, and, since it’s much more difficult to find your way back from someplace you’ve never left, I suggest you go there immediately and then decide.” – p. 114 as spoken by the Midget/The Giant
“What are Illusions?” Milo asked, for it was the loveliest city he’d ever seen.
“Illusions,” explained Alec, “are like mirages,” and, realizing that this didn’t help much, he continued: “And mirages are things that aren’t really there that you can see very clearly.”
“How can you see something that isn’t there?” yawned the Humbug, who wasn’t fully awake yet.
“Sometimes it’s much simpler than seeing things that are,” he said. – p. 115
“Is this the place where numbers are made?” asked Milo as the car lurched again, and this time the Dodecahedron sailed off down the mountainside, head over heels and grunt over grimace, until he landed sad side up at what looked like the entrance to a cave.
“They’re not made,” he replied, as if nothing had happened. “You have to dig for them. Don’t you know anything at all about numbers?”
“Well, I don’t think they’re very important,” snapped Milo, too embarrassed to admit the truth.
“NOT IMPORTANT!” roared the Dodecahedron, turning red with fury. “Could you have tea for two without the two—or three blind mice without the three? Would there be four corners of the earth if there weren’t a four? And how would you sail the seven seas without a seven?”
“All I meant was—” began Milo, but the Dodecahedron, overcome with emotion and shouting furiously, carried right on.
“If you had high hopes, how would you know how high they were? And did you know that narrow escapes come in all different widths? Would you travel the whole wide world without ever knowing how wide it was? And how could you do anything at long last,” he concluded, waving his arms over his head, “without knowing how long the last was? Why, numbers are the most beautiful and valuable things in the world. Just follow me and I’ll show you.” – pp. 176-177
“You may not see it now,” said the Princess of Pure Reason, looking knowingly at Milo’s puzzled face,
“but whatever we learn has a purpose and whatever we do affects everything and everyone else, if even in the tiniest way. Why, when a housefly flaps his wings, a breeze goes round the world; when a speck of dust falls to the ground, the entire planet weighs a little more; and when you stamp your foot, the earth moves slightly off its course. Whenever you laugh, gladness spreads like the ripples in a pond; and whenever you’re sad, no one anywhere can be really happy. And it’s much the same thing with knowledge, for whenever you learn something new, the whole world becomes that much richer.”
“And remember, also,” added the Princess of Sweet Rhyme, “that many places you would like to see are just off the map and many things you want to know are just out of sight or a little beyond your reach. But someday you’ll reach them all, for what you learn today, for no reason at all, will help you discover all the wonderful secrets of tomorrow.”
And my absolute favorite:
“… many of the things which can never be, often are. You see,” he went on, “it’s very much like your trying to reach Infinity. You know that it’s there, but you just don’t know where—but just because you can never reach it doesn’t mean that it’s not worth looking for.” – as spoken by .58 the child, p. 197
The Art of Annotation. This vibrant book (I tell you, it grows alive in your hands) is the product of an unlikely collaboration between an architect (Juster) and an illustrator/quintessential-struggling-artist (Feiffer) who were sharing “a duplex apartment in a blue-shuttered row house at nearby 153 State Street.” Leonard Marcus’ detailed notes is a perfect match to what has been described as Norton Juster’s compulsive note-taking. Leonard has created such a comprehensive introduction that effectively weaves together the life story narratives of Feiffer and Juster, as well as Jason Epstein’s journeys as a publisher, and the birth of The Phantom Tollbooth which has been depicted as an “amalgam between Gulliver’s Travels and Alice in Wonderland” from an ad published in the New York Times Book Review in 1961.
This annotated version is truly a book within a book as Leonard includes detailed historical events that provide an illuminating socio-political context to some of the events found in the actual narrative. Leonard also provided reproductions of illustrations that did not make it to the actual book, photographs of Juster’s notes and lists which he later discarded and edited for the final published version, pictures of both author and illustrator when they were younger giving the narrative an even more textured nuance. The annotations also include the etiology of certain words such as procrastination and phrases like killing time and when it was first used in literary history – it’s a veritable treasure trove of wordswordswords – and a meticulous study and incisive understanding of where they came from, where they have gone, and where they’re going next. Add to that the curious knowledge that there is absolutely no reason to be bored as “There’s just so much to do right here.”
Teacher Resources. ReadWriteThink.org has created this downloadable pdf link that functions as a Figurative Language Chart that can be used to decode and analyze the words/phrases used in the book. A downloadable Doldrums Powerpoint presentation and figurative language resources could also be found here.
This 67-paged downloadable pdf file has absolutely everything you might need to introduce The Phantom Tollbooth in your classroom as it includes rubrics, extension activities, independent or group projects that can be done by the students, as well as web links that could also be explored.
The Annotated Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster, Illustrations by Jules Feiffer and Annotations by Leonard S. Marcus. Published by Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2011. Book borrowed from the public library.
AWB Reading Challenge Update: 99 (35)